While finishing her book, “On Reading Well,” Karen Swallow Prior wrote a reflection on patience, suffering and the virtues of one of literature’s less celebrated heroines: Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s final novel, “Persuasion.”
The link between patience and suffering, she noted, can be seen in the word “patient,” as in someone who is under medical care.
“Suffering is not something that we do well in the modern age,” wrote Prior. “It’s certainly not something I do well. ... Since suffering is inevitable in this world, it might seem silly to consider the willingness to endure it as a virtue. But while suffering is inevitable, we can choose how we bear it. Patient character has everything to do with our will, as opposed to our circumstances.”
Days after finishing that book, the Liberty University English professor visited Nashville for work on another project. At the same time, she was involved in a national news story, speaking out as a Southern Baptist on #ChurchToo controversies swirling around Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Walking to an editorial meeting, Prior stepped into a Nashville crosswalk and was hit by a bus. That was a year ago.
This wasn’t a story about a fictional character, with mental images and lessons that could be filed away. This suffering was real, with stabbing pains and scars linked to fractures in her spine, shoulder, ribs and pelvis — now steadied by a large titanium screw.
But the point of “On Reading Well” — including her meditation on patience and suffering — is that great books soak deep into readers, providing wisdom and strength during life’s twists and turns. In that book, Prior linked specific books to specific virtues. Prudence, temperance, justice and courage are considered “cardinal” virtues, while faith, hope and love are “theological” virtues. Finally, there are the “heavenly” virtues: chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.
“Reading well adds to our life — not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life,” she wrote, but “in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.”
This is why Prior remains convinced that — in an age of noise, confusion and intolerance — it’s more important than ever for families and congregations to help believers learn to enjoy and absorb great stories from great books. In an age of omnipresent digital screens, religious leaders can be truly countercultural by promoting reading among young and old. In an interview, Prior offered three reasons why she believes this is true:
“Christianity is a religion of THE book,” she noted, referring to the Bible. “We can’t be deep and faithful Christians without the ability to read well.” Much of the biblical illiteracy she sees today — in classrooms and online — is caused by a “lack of ability to understand individual pieces of scripture and where they fall in the larger arc of the Bible, as a whole.”
Careful readers can learn — “one word at a time, one line at a time” — how to be logical and critical thinkers. This is terribly important, she said, as “we find ourselves in a late- or post-modern age that has loosened so many ties to reason and logic.”
Reading great fiction “allows us to enter the minds of characters who are quite different than us, allowing us to expand our ability to understand and to empathize with other points of view,” said Prior. “That’s an essential skill that so many people are losing. ... We need to be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes, now more than ever.”
Church leaders should start offering activities other than what she called, with a laugh, “men’s hunting nights” and “women’s essential oils nights.” Prior is currently working with B&H Publishing — part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources — to produce new editions of classics such as Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and others.
“We do need to get past the whole idea of men writing things for men to read and women writing things that women are supposed to read,” she added. “At some point, our churches need to remember that it’s important to everyone to read — period.”
Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.